Desert Isle Keeper
I had some trepidation picking up this latest book from Julianna Keyes. Not because I don’t enjoy the author’s work – I do. Not because it’s about baseball, which is boring. Friends. It is. And not because anything about it sounded bad or not good or uninteresting. I was nervous because I hated Ms. Keyes last book. Big time. Happily for me (and you), she’s written a homerun (Hi! I’m Em. I’ve never met a sports metaphor I didn’t love). In Team Player, two lonely, sad souls (keep reading) find the love of their lives where and when they least expect it. Unlike every baseball game I’ve ever watched, Team Player kept me engaged from start to finish, and I couldn’t put it down. Funny, sexy and with just enough angsty emotional twists and turns to power the second half, Team Player hopefully marks the start of a new baseball-themed romantic series from this talented writer. I liked almost everything about it and contemporary romance fans will too. Even the baseball – which the author clearly loves.
Gwen Scott is weighing the pros and cons of making a run for it. Another Charleston Thrasher (a fictional South Carolina MLB team) loss means someone has to deliver talking points to team manager, Rex Stripley, before he meets with the press. The last time Gwen was given this job, Rex had just fired his fourth assistant – the same unfortunate person who used to deliver these talking points. Gwen’s decided to make a run for it when the manager of Public Relations, Promotions & Social Media Strategy finds her, hands over the bulleted list and instructs Gwen to deliver it to Rex. And even though Gwen isn’t sure she even likes her job – she applied on drunken whim after her aunt Marge, a die-hard Thrasher superfan, had a massive heart attack and died – quitting now feels like an insult to her aunt. So when Team Player begins, Gwen is on her way down to the clubhouse, death warrant/notes in hand.
The visit doesn’t go according to plan. Awkward and nervous, Gwen flings the talking points out to Rex. But when he starts reading them out loud, growing angrier with every inane platitude on the paper, Gwen finds herself talking about the game with him instead – and he likes what she has to say. When he uses her talking points instead of the ones on the paper, Gwen is secretly thrilled – and scared. But her boss likes what she has to say, and before long, Gwen finds herself responsible for providing the manager with talking points after every game and managing the team twitter feed, along with a ton of new promotional responsibilities. Gwen isn’t totally surprised – she knows baseball. Since the moment she was sent to live with her aunt aged nine, MLB and the Charleston Thrashers have been her life. She knows everything there is to know about the team, their stats… and their players. Including Tyler Ashe, the team’s handsome and eligible shortstop, who’s been struggling all year and needs some talking points of his own.
Tyler has been an MLB all-star player since the start of his career. But this year, after his closest friend and fellow player, Connor, was sent to jail, Tyler has been off his game. Lonely, depressed and withdrawn, the last thing Tyler wants to do is talk to the press about any of it, but after skipping out on another post-game interview, Rex benches him in favour of a younger player. Determined to get back in the starting line-up, Tyler promises not to miss any more interviews and listens when his manager recommends he speak to the latest PR staffer for talking points. Gwen isn’t what he expects. Smart, sharp and knowledgeable about the game and his play, she gives him good advice. She’s also attractive and funny, and Tyler finds himself curious about her – seeking her out whenever she’s in the clubhouse.
What follows isn’t quite your standard workplace romcom. For starters, these two adorkable nerds bond after separately escaping a team publicity event and unexpectedly winding up alone together in the arcade room of a popular bar. They trade game stats and childhood memories, until Ty winds up taunting/challenging Gwen into racing him in Taxi-Kart (a game they both love). When the extremely intense and competitive race is over, they’re pressed close together and wind up making out on a nearby pool table. Just before Gwen nearly has sex with Ty in public, on a pool table, at a bar… they hear another Thrasher player looking for Tyler and separate. Gwen is quick to regret the incident and her loss of control. She might be in a dry spell and Ty might be her fantasy come to life, but she knows better. Ty’s a player, on and off the field, baseball is his one and only love, and she’d be terminated if they got caught. She flees and makes plans to avoid Tyler. Oh Gwen. Good luck with that.
Team Player doesn’t quite proceed in a straight-line – mostly because Tyler makes a lot of mistakes and Gwen doesn’t put up with any of his bullshit excuses for treating her poorly or making bad decisions because he’s never been in a relationship before. Ty wants Gwen and he works hard to woo her; but it’s a battle he’s destined to win, because it’s clear she likes him too. The chemistry between Gwen and Ty is delightful, the sex is steamy and passionate, and their witty back-and-forths are a highlight of their often funny, tender and sexy secret affair. He works hard to tear down the walls that Gwen keeps between them, and as a couple – friends and lovers – they begin to heal the hurt and loneliness plaguing them both when the story opened.
While the romance between Ty and Gwen hits only high notes (even when they’re on the outs), their lives outside of the relationship improve as well. Gwen’s work in the PR department gains the approval of super scary boss Allison – and although that means she’s given more responsibilities, she’s good at her job, and starts to enjoy it. Ty works hard to build relationships with his teammates too, and it pays off. The team starts to gel on and off the field and finally starts winning. While the romantic relationship is my favorite, the bonds Ty forms with these guys – a quirky, odd, and eclectic group – is also perfectly rendered. The author never panders to our stereotypical ideas about athletes and sports romances, and Team Player is a fresh, and supremely entertaining take on sports romance.
So what doesn’t work? A couple of things. Ty’s relationship with Connor might be the reason he’s down when he meets Gwen, but the author doesn’t spend quite enough time showing us why. He felt more like a convenient plot device than an actual character, and an unnecessary suspense subplot – a saboteur may be working behind the scenes to damage the team – was a ridiculous and unnecessary addition to a novel that was nearly perfect without it.
Despite these minor complaints, and the swing-and-a-miss that was her last book, Ms. Keyes hits this one straight out of the park. #YouLoveMyMetaphorsToo